Saturday might end up being a day that we all look back upon as a major moment in the history of the Mark Stoops era at Kentucky. In the midst of year three, a pivotal season for the future of the program, Saturday saw the worst and the best of UK Football practices and a roller coaster with potential far-reaching ramifications. Saturday started with what was supposed to be the final scrimmage before the beginning of the regular season and chance for the players to get kicked into gear before real play began. Much like the third preseason game in the NFL, the scrimmage 2 weeks before the season is the final time for the starters to showcase that they are ready for what is upcoming and to bring their “A” games. Needless to say, Kentucky didn’t. What followed was a practice that one onlooker told me was “the worst of the last two seasons.” Kentucky was out of sorts, made errors left and right and most significantly to Mark Stoops, showcased far too little effort for a team that was about to hit the big time. As one source told me, “it was the kind of performance that would get you massacred in the SEC.”
Stoops complained loudly about it at the press conference afterwards and most assumed he was trying to send a message to his players. And in fact, that was likely the goal. But then Stoops went back to his office, watched the tape of the proceedings and decided a media message wasn’t enough…they would have to hit the practice field again. And thus even though Saturday night was a scheduled night off for players and staff, Stoops called them all back. A second practice was to be held in the middle of the night, with fixing the lack of energy in the first the primary goal. Because of an event for incoming students at Commonwealth Stadium, Kentucky had to practice at their facility in near darkness. They went to the grass fields that were only lit by secondary lights far away and in a scene that one source told me was “just this side of total darkness”, UK practiced again…and things turned around.
Obviously I wasn’t in attendance, but virtually everyone who was that I spoke with said the same thing…the practice Saturday night was a special event for the UK Football team. Whether it was the energy, the embarrassment of the earlier poor play or the night atmosphere, players, coaches and staff all praised what followed as an example of football at its best. Multiple coaches said it was the most special practice of their coaching lives and players hit social media to talk at length about what occurred. One source told me, “Matt, if we could have played that next day, I would have taken us against anybody.” The excitement was universal and there is a real belief among those around the program that it could be the turning point the team needs going into the last two weeks of practice. This has been a good summer camp for UK Football and the coaches have been generally pleased about the progression. But everyone also believed that UK needed to get over that one final hump to be ready for the season…whether that was going to happen was up in the air, especially after Saturday’s scrimmage.
However now the vibe is different. Now there is a sense of belief all around the team, including those that are often less spirited that this team can take a positive step. It will be important to carry on over the last two weeks but optimism is higher right now within the UK team than at any point of the Stoops era. Can that all be the case of one amazing practice? Maybe not, but it was clearly a huge moment and one that we may look back on as being a crucial step towards an important season.